Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Tales of Hoffman

Diary management is always a bit of a challenge for me. A few weeks back, for instance, I was invited by Penguin UK to have dinner with someone I’ve long wanted to talk with: American lawyer-turned-novelist Jilliane Hoffman. She was in London for only a few days, launching her third novel, Plea of Insanity. However, her visit clashed with the Crime Writers’ Association’s annual Dagger Awards presentation. In the end, Hoffman and I agreed to speak sometime later. But then there were additional commitments on my end, including trips to ThrillerFest and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Finally, though, I managed to get ahold of her by phone and through e-mail, and we discussed her writing and her interest in mentally unstable antagonists.

For those of you who don’t know this already, Hoffman first came to the attention of crime-fiction fans back in 2004, thanks to the publication that year of her legal-thriller debut, Retribution. As an avid reader of thrillers featuring the mentally deranged (both Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane, and Thomas Harristales of Hannibal Lecter come to mind), Retribution made me stand up and take notice. It was a startling dark thriller with a troubling plot that made me stay up way past my bedtime, book in hand.

At the time, Hoffman, who had become an author after first serving as an assistant state attorney prosecuting felonies in Florida and a regional legal advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), told Bookpage:
“What a week I had! The book was auctioned off on a Monday, it was sold in five countries by Wednesday, and then it was sold to Warner Brothers on Friday. I keep thinking I’m probably going to die a very violent death because I had such a great year. Somebody should not have that much good luck in one year.”

Early buzz hints that Retribution could be this year’s Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow’s 1987 debut that cast a similarly jaundiced eye toward our often-fallible justice system.

The novel opens with the brutal rape of Chloe Larson, a New York law student who is about to marry and embark on a promising legal career. Her attacker, who wears a clown’s mask, is never found and continues to stalk her, derailing her life.

Fast-forward a decade. Chloe has reinvented herself as C.J. Townsend, a hard-nosed Miami state attorney and go-to prosecutor in high-profile capital cases whose past remains her closely guarded secret. When police apprehend a serial killer dubbed Cupid by the media (his m.o. involves surgically removing the hearts of his female victims), C.J. can’t wait to prosecute him--until she hears his voice in court and, to her horror, finds herself face to face with her long-ago assailant.

Can she ethically proceed with the prosecution? Should she come clean about her relationship to the accused and risk having the case reassigned to a less competent prosecutor? Or, if she keeps her secret, can she hold herself together long enough to win a conviction?
Retribution went on to become an international bestseller, tapping into themes that entwined the serial-killer motif most associated with Thomas Harris together with literary efforts better linked to John Grisham. She followed up that book one year later with Last Witness, which continued the adventures of C.J. Townsend and scored some not-so-faint praise from Bookreporter. “While Hoffman’s protagonists are interesting and three-dimensional,” opined Bookreporter’s Joe Hartlaub, “she truly excels when creating her bogeymen, nightmarish characters who live and think where the buses don’t run and where angels fear to tread. Hoffman also subtly utilizes the political and cultural backdrop of southern Florida to great advantage, but never lets the flora and fauna get in the way of her dynamic, suspenseful delivery.”

Still, it’s her newest novel, Plea of Insanity, that intrigues me most of all. It offers a complex story of the law and the mentally ill that snakes around a very troubling moral dilemma. About the plot of this novel (which just hit the top-10 bestseller list in the UK), Hoffman’s Web site explains:
Julia Valenciano is a young, ambitious Miami prosecutor. Assigned to a hectic trial division with an ornery judge, just getting through the day can be a challenge. When Julia’s asked to second chair a case that could very well make or break her career, she doesn’t hesitate to jump on board. The defendant--a successful Miami surgeon. The victims--his own wife and small children. The plea--Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity.

The perfect father. The perfect husband. Dr. David Marquette seemingly just snapped one night. Or did he? His defense team claims paranoid delusions caused by schizophrenia drove him to slaughter his entire family. But the state suspects Marquette’s insanity defense is being fabricated to disguise murders that were cold-blooded and calculated. And the evidence appears to be mounting that Marquette may be responsible for other unsolved murders around the state as well. Murders that bear the frightening signature of a serial killer.

It’s Julia’s first murder trial and her first insanity defense and the stakes are incredibly high. If convicted, Marquette faces the ultimate penalty--death. If found insane, he could walk free. To bring a killer to justice, Julia will have to journey into the mind of madness herself. For her, the trial of Dr. David Marquette will mean more than just disarming a legal defense--it will take her on a personal journey back into her own past. A past she has struggled for fifteen years to forget. And it will bring her face to face with a future that is so frightening, she’s not sure she ever wants to see it ...
After finally catching up with author Jilliane Hoffman, I asked her about real-life incidents that have influenced her fiction-writing, her genuine fascination with serial killers, and the pending return of protagonist C.J. Townsend.

Ali Karim: So how did a lawyer end up writing crime thrillers?

Jilliane Hoffman: I had a few ideas for novels floating around my head for years. As a prosecutor, there’s always a few good characters just waiting for you to put them in a story when you step inside a courthouse on a Monday morning. When state budget cuts gave me only half the raise I was supposed to get at FDLE (which as a state employee wasn’t too much to begin with), I decided to stay home with my two young daughters and try my hand at putting some of those crazy characters and nasty plots down on paper. Retribution was my first go.

AK: Were you a reader in your youth? And if so, who cultivated your interest in writing?

JH: My parents are both avid readers and there was never a shortage of good books lying around my house, from the classics to New York Times bestsellers. But I don’t think it was until I read my first Stephen King novel at 11 that I really appreciated an author who could keep me up all night, scared out of my wits and yet still desperately flipping pages under the covers with a flashlight in hand. Now that’s talent, I thought. As for writing, I have always liked creative writing and I’ve always had a rather wicked imagination, but I vowed in college--after pulling the umpteenth all-nighter of the semester finishing a paper for English Lit--that I would never, ever pick a career where I had to write on demand. So much for sleep-deprived, never-ever-again proclamations.

AK: I really enjoyed your debut, Retribution, especially the character of Chloe Larson (aka C.J. Townsend). Can you tell us where the story came from and how you crafted such a compelling protagonist?

JH: Retribution began brewing in my head back when I was a prosecutor. Now, it’s a beautiful city and I don’t mean to scare off any would-be tourists, but as a major metropolis with a population of over three million, it should come as no surprise that Miami definitely has its share of crime. And with crime, of course, comes victims. All day long, every day, as a prosecutor, you are with victims in court, at pre-files, in depositions, at trial, on the phone. Over and over again you hear their horrible stories and their pleas for justice. But unfortunately, though, sometimes you have to tell a victim that the system is broken; that for some reason--be it a bad stop or search or ID--there will be no justice for them in the courthouse. That’s a tough day.

It was after one of those bad days--a cop had made a bad search on a robbery case and everything was tossed out--that I began to think, what if? What if a victim had an opportunity to prosecute their offender? This thought came on the heels of a serial rape case that I was about to try at the time and so I pushed the question into that forum: What if a rape victim had the opportunity to prosecute their rapist? What would she do? Would she seek justice like the Fourth Amendment mandates or would it be retribution? And is there a difference?

The rest of the plot fell in from there. I simply took my characters and my question and placed them into the Miami legal system and let the law drive me to the ending.

AK: And as for that book’s antagonist, William Bantling, where in your imagination did he spring from?

JH: I think Bill Bantling is a combination of all sorts of bad characters that I have confronted in my career--serial killers, rapists, con artists, psychopaths. The worst of the worst. I made him good looking and dapper and sometimes charming, because it was disarming, and I think those characteristics made him all the more chilling. Most people mistakenly believe that in real life they’ll be able to spot a bad person right off the bat--that to be evil, one will look the part. Definitely not true.

AK: Do you read courtroom dramas, and if so can you tell us which ones made an impression on you and why?

JH: I probably went to law school because of John Grisham and Scott Turow. I loved A Time to Kill, because of how Grisham took you into the courtroom and didn’t bore you to death with monotony. The rape scene definitely drew you into the story, but he kept you in the courtroom, turning pages, championing for someone who’s supposed to be on the wrong side of the law. That’s tough to do.

AK: You followed up your debut with Last Witness. Did you always know that C.J. Townsend would be returning

JH: I knew when I wrote Retribution that I was going to write a sequel, so, yes, I did know she’d return.

AK: And the reason for your fascination with serial killers as antagonists …?

JH: I’ve always been intrigued by serial killers. They kill seemingly without reason, which makes them extremely difficult to predict and, of course, to catch. To hunt them, you have to try and get inside their minds, to figure out why it is they do what they do, so that you can try to prevent them from doing it again--before they find another victim.

AK: There was a little gap in what had become your usual schedule, before your third novel, Plea of Insanity, was released this summer. What were you up to?

JH: Plea of Insanity was another nasty plot that had been brewing in my head for years. It was inspired in part by a friend whose brother was diagnosed [as being] paranoid schizophrenic, back when we were in law school. Researching it took many months and included visits to a maximum-security insane asylum and face-to-face interviews with schizophrenics and psychopaths, not to mention devouring a few dozen books on mental illness and debriefing a couple of forensic psychiatrists over cocktails and coffee. Then it was time to write, which took me almost two years. It was a labor of love.

AK: Can you tell us more about how that long-ago incident with your friend’s brother inspired this book?

JH: As I said before, Plea of Insanity was inspired by a friend whose brother was diagnosed schizophrenic when we were in law school. Right after we graduated, “Mark” unfortunately stopped taking his meds and, acting under a bizarre delusion, he drowned his infant son and tried to kill himself. He was pled not guilty by reason of insanity by the state and spent many years in a maximum-security forensic hospital. “Tina” and I were very close when this happened and so, as a friend, I watched as she struggled to come to terms with this devastating illness that had seemingly ravaged her family. Like most people, I knew nothing about schizophrenia at the time, but when I began to do some research, I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t know that it affects 1 percent of the world’s population. I didn’t know that there is no known cause and that there is no cure. And I didn’t know that although there is no “schizophrenia gene” that’s been isolated yet, the disease tends to run in families. I couldn’t think of anything more frightening for my friend than having to face the real-life possibility of going insane.

That was the first seed for Plea of Insanity. From there it grew into a courtroom thriller, because you write what you know and I wanted to take the reader on the roller-coaster ride that is an insanity plea. Ultimately, though, what I wanted to accomplish was to write a thriller that would thrill and scare and terrify, but that in the end would also demonstrate compassion towards those who suffer from this devastating illness and their families. Not an easy task.

Tina and Mark were definitely inspirations, but the plot is definitely fiction.

AK: Dr. David Marquette, the man at the center of the case, accused of murdering his family, is certainly an interesting character, and characterization is one of your strengths. So tell us how you go about working out a character. And do you plot everything out extensively prior to writing?

JH: I usually have an ending before I have a beginning. I am drawn to writing plots that don’t have an easy answer at the end--that leave a reader asking himself, “Hmmm, what would I have done in that situation?” after he turns the last page. Although the law tries to make things black and white in statute books, in real life, the lines between right and wrong are sometimes very blurry indeed. I like to develop believable, morally upstanding characters and then place them into those gray areas and see what they would do when faced with problems that no longer have an easy answer. And of course, I need to throw in some legal twists and turns, and nothing can be what you thought it was--so yes, I do plot extensively before I write.

AK: And again, in Plea of Insanity we see a connection to serial-killing. The shelves are already rife with serial-killer novels. Why do you think crime-fiction readers are so fascinated by this species of murderer?

JH: I think for the same reasons I am. Serial killers are the evil mutations of the human race. The randomness of their crimes and the brutality of their actions make people feel particularly vulnerable to them, and that’s chilling.

AK: You did a great deal of research on mental illness for Plea. Can you tell us why mental instability fascinates you?

JH: I love trying to figure out the human mind, why some people do what they do … Maybe it’s because I’ve seen some really bad people and some really bad crimes in my career, but people still never cease to amaze me. Just when I think I’ve seen or heard it all, another headline pops up, like the Virginia Tech massacre last April, and it sucks the air from my lungs. And I want to know why.

AK: Have you read Thomas Harris’ works, and what is your take on them?

JH: Easy question to answer. I have read all of Thomas Harris’ work and I am a big fan. I love how he can take a reader to a scene and make you smell it, hear it, feel it. And he scares me to death.

AK: So, what of merit has passed over your reading table recently?

JH: I am reading some classic thrillers that I haven’t read before. The most recent was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood [1965], which I liked a lot. So much so, that I borrowed a quote from it for Plea of Insanity.

AK: And what are you working on currently?

JH: I am doing a follow-up thriller to Last Witness, which will bring C.J. Townsend back to the State Attorney’s Office to face her past once again. And [she’ll face] another new, really bad guy who is terrorizing the good people of Miami.

AK: Any update on seeing C.J. Townsend on the big screen?

JH: The movie is “in development,” I am told. I’m hopeful I’ll have some more news soon.

For a taste of Hoffman’s work, read the prologue from Plea of Insanity here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great interview. Any information on why PLEA OF INSANITY HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED IN u.s.?